Mind Health: SMHAF's 2018 Theatre Programme

The Skinny talks to the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival’s Gail Aldam and artist Skye Loneragan about the festival’s theme, aims and its biggest theatre programme yet

Feature by Amy Taylor | 30 Apr 2018

“A common misconception about the festival, and work exploring mental health more generally, is that it can be depressing,” begins Gail Aldam, Festival Manager at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF), which returns this month. “While much of what we present does focus on difficult experiences and challenging subjects, these shows are creative, surprising, uplifting and funny – and would fit comfortably into any other arts festival.” 

Although the subject matter of SMHAF sets it apart from all of the other arts festivals in Scotland, mental health as a topic has experienced something of a surge in popularity in the arts in recent years, with more work being created exploring the subject. Founded in 2007, SMHAF was created to celebrate the artistic achievements of people with experience of mental health issues, as well as explore the relationship between creativity and the mind, and work to promote mental health and reduce stigma.

Now one of the largest festivals of its kind, SMHAF boasts over 300 events and 25,000 attendees over the course of the month, and the programme features live performance, film screenings, talks, stand-up comedy, music and visual arts.

“We want to encourage everyone to talk about mental health and to understand that it is something that affects all of us. And although our experiences with mental health may be very different, that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand each other or relate to each other’s experiences,” explains Aldam. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, health is not an uncommon theme in the theatre; in fact, issues surrounding mental health can be found in some of the most popular plays in the world, from Hamlet’s performance of madness during his investigation of his father’s murder, to the fearless writing of Sarah Kane.

However, SMHAF’s theatre programme – which this year features Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Fisk, an exploration of depression and connection, as well as a double bill of the National Theatre of Scotland’s award-winning plays exploring transgender identity; Adam by Adam Kashmiry and Jo Clifford's Eve – has grown since 2017, and this year promises to be the biggest yet, thanks to more and more artists using theatre as a way to retell and explore their stories.

“Theatre creates a space where artists can craft their stories and communicate them to audiences in a very direct way – the process not only helps artists to better understand their own experiences, but also turns them into something that can help raise awareness much more broadly,” says Aldam. “This has been obvious, for example, in the Edinburgh Fringe programme over the last few years, which led us last year to create the first Mental Health Fringe Award. The winner, Mental, is being included as part of our own festival programme this May. All this has led to increased awareness of the festival – and more theatre submissions – and we wanted to include as much of the fantastic work touring across Scotland as we could.”

The 2018 festival, which takes place this month, instead of its usual slot of October, coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May), which this year ties in to the theme of stress. The theme of SMHAF for this year is Beginnings, which was selected to coincide with the Scottish Government’s Year of Young People, but also to mark the festival’s move to an earlier time in the year. Because of this, the SMHAF is particularly keen to address and support the mental health of young people, as well as providing a space to explore for Scotland’s next generation of artists.  

“Throughout this year’s festival, we want to explore the idea that the road to positive mental health – or to mental health problems – begins very early in life,” Aldam explains. “Considering recent research showing large increases in young people requiring support for mental health problems and suggesting that half of adult mental health problems begin in childhood, we feel it is more important than ever that this festival engages with, and is informed by, young audiences, and that young people are involved in shaping our programme.”

For Skye Loneragan, an award-winning artist appearing at SMHAF, the festival is the ideal platform for her latest work, a piece exploring parenthood and mental health (or as she prefers to call it ‘mind health’) Though This Be Madness. “What I’m really curious about is how we all subscribe to daily delusions in simply getting by… and what madness this is, our idea of sanity,” she explains.

It’s this idea of sanity, and what we as a society believe to be sane that forms the core of this work for Loneragan, as she believes it's these beliefs and labels that can be more detrimental to our minds and views.

“Given that so much of what we deem sane directly damages our mental health, and our survival on this planet, how can we soothe each other? How can we stay connected and is staying connected key to feeling better?”

The subject of mind health and the mind itself is something that interests Loneragan, especially in how it relates to the words we use to describe it and our ideas of what it actually is, and how artists can respond to it.

“Exploring matters of the mind, and ‘mind health’ is intriguing to me – I think any idea of acknowledging it might be related again to the stigma surrounding that phrase ‘mental health’. Would we ask someone exploring how their mind works to acknowledge they are exploring how their mind works? And surely if we all have a mind, then we are all complicit in creating our reality. Would we ask someone exploring diabetes to acknowledge they are dealing with diabetic themes, or someone exploring the concept of cancer or the story of a loved one suffering from cancer… would we ask them to acknowledge the cancer themes in their work?”

For Loneragan, the chance to stage Though This Be Madness at the festival allows her the opportunity to understand and work through past experiences with mind health and attitudes towards it, while sharing it with others.

“I’m trying to make sense of a whole bunch of experiences with close family members who wrestle with their own quest to make sense of the world and ill-health. Life just keeps knocking this theme on the head for me and I want to be able to speak out, freak out, share a laugh, a sigh, some provocations and some new perspectives through this frame of new mature-age motherhood.”

For Aldam, the festival has proven to be a very positive experience for everyone who attends, from the artists who create and perform new work, to the audiences that come along to events to watch and share that experience with them. Which, as she points out, can be a highly transformative experience for everyone involved.

“We know that engaging in the arts, at every level, has a positive impact on wellbeing. Artists involved in the festival have also shared that the process of creating personal work about mental health can be a cathartic one which has a positive impact on their own mental health.”

The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, 7-27 May, venues across Scotland https://www.mhfestival.com/